Struggling for Transformation

April 26, 2008

Once again, transformation is in the wind at the Pentagon.

The White House announced in January that big decisions about the defense budget would be on hold, awaiting a new requirements study by Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld.

Rumsfeld has been conducting his review behind closed doors in consultation with a limited group of trusted advisors.

It appears that Rumsfeld and the Administration have more in mind than minor adjustments, and that they will pick up the long-elusive goal of “transforming” the armed forces to be better attuned to the needs of the future.

That is presumed to include leap-ahead technology programs, national missile defense-a staple of the Bush Presidential campaign-and more emphasis on space.

Rumsfeld is said to be taking this limited-access approach to avoid getting hung up, as did the Quadrennial Defense Review and the National Defense Panel review in 1997, by internal Pentagon politics, which work to perpetuate the status quo.

The “transformation” theme was introduced by the National Defense Panel. It said the armed forces should focus on the coming challenges of the 21st century and become “a very different kind of military from that which exists today.”

The idea of transformation sounds great, but there are barriers–institutional, practical, financial, political, and doctrinal–to getting there.

Some kinds of transformation go over better than others.

In 1996, Joint Vision 2010 looked beyond the prevailing model of attrition warfare and said that precision targeting and long range systems made it possible to achieve the effects of mass without the actual massing of forces within range of the enemy’s guns.

That put increased reliance on airpower, and it alarmed the land power traditionalists. Massing of forces is their stock in trade. Four years later, official thinking was revised in Joint Vision 2020. It rolled back the consensus and reinstituted the principle of massing forces in response to crisis.

Thus the joint community walked up to doctrinal transformation, looked it in the eye, and ran from it.

On the other hand, we have seen the Army move out boldly to replace its heavy divisions with lighter forces and its tanks with wheeled combat vehicles.

Transformation is hard to define. Its most ardent disciples often speak in nebulous generalities about the future. Current systems get minimal respect. Evolutionary progress is not always recognized, even when there is a lot of it.

Today’s precision strike capability, for example, is an enormous leap from what was possible 10 years ago, but you’d never know it from reading the newspaper commentaries.

Some theoreticians say transformation is about ideas and concepts, and up to a point, it is. But it is also financial.

In the end, it comes down to which new initiatives will be started, which old programs will survive, and which ones will be canceled or curtailed.

Congress will approach it that way, even if the Pentagon doesn’t. Any move to reduce the role of big deck carriers, for example, will encounter fierce resistance in the Senate.

If transformation deteriorates to a budget competition, as happened in the Quadrennial Defense Review and the National Defense Panel review, strange things can happen.

Has it been noted that of the three aircraft programs under scrutiny, the Air Force’s F-22, the Joint Strike Fighter, and the Navy’s F/A-18, the one that is least likely to be cut–the F/A-18–is also the one that is least transformational

Transformation competes with the needs of today. The short budgets of the Clinton years left the military in a deep hole. The replacement of worn-out capital equipment cannot be postponed much longer. Readiness problems are getting worse. The Bush election campaign recognized these realities with its pledge that “help is on the way.”

We cannot stand down the force of today and reinvest the money in the force of tomorrow. Even if Bush and Rumsfeld succeed in reducing our operational obligations abroad, the remaining demands on current forces will still be substantial.

The present rate of spending, with 3.0 percent of GDP allocated to defense, isn’t enough, even with cuts to existing programs to help pay the bills. For any sort of transformation, defense will have to get about 4.0 percent of GDP, its level in the first Clinton Administration.

And then there are the other problems.

Earlier this year, a draft report on the Joint Strategy Review recognized a “halt phase,” in which a theater commander could try to stop the advance of an invading enemy early in a regional conflict, primarily with aircraft and cruise missiles.

It didn’t say there must be a halt phase, only that it was an option open to theater commanders. The halt phase had been recognized previously as a good idea by the Quadrennial Defense Review in 1997.

Then as now, Army officers took exception. The halt phase diminished the importance of heavy ground forces, which would not get there in time to take part.

This time, they appealed the Joint Strategy Review language to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who excised the reference to the halt phase, at least for the time being.

Some kinds of transformation are easier than others.